With record numbers of applications rolling in, admission to top-choice institutions has become more elusive than ever before. In this atmosphere, it is unsurprising that some would turn to the influx of international students — a mere 5 percent of all undergraduates in American colleges — to explain the vicious competition of higher education. A recent article in The Atlantic argues that international students should never take a place in an entering freshman class that could have gone to a U.S. citizen, even at private universities — and states that many international students may be lying on their applications in order to achieve admission. Claiming that international recruiters are paid to favor some students over others, especially in highly competitive countries such as China and India, denounces the presence of the international student as another rusted gear in the inner workings of American higher education.
The stakes are high in the search for an acceptance letter. With the undergraduate diploma quickly becoming the millennial’s equivalent of a baby boomer’s high school education, more people than ever before are applying to universities — and spending more time preparing their applications. Companies like the Princeton Review and Kaplan, Inc. charge hundreds or thousands of dollars for test-prep courses and application counseling, creating an entire college admissions industry. Meanwhile, admissions rates are dropping precipitously. Tuition rates have climbed at an alarming rate, even within the past 10 years. Parents across the nation find themselves gripped by the fear that their children may be outcompeted. Truth be told, many are. Not everybody attends Harvard or Stanford, University of California Berkeley or USC. But it’s not because of the presence of international students. They are not the problem — we are.
Admissions percentages have decreased, but the number of international students has not increased proportionally at these schools. These decreases are not due to the displacement of U.S. citizens by international students, but rather because the sheer number of applications has dramatically increased. American students are not being outcompeted — they are simply competing with each other at a higher rate. The decline of funding for public universities by state governments has resulted in not only more prospective students, but also fewer available seats. Despite these financial impediments, public systems like the University of California have consistently expanded the number of students they are willing to take on, the vast majority of whom are not only natural-born U.S. citizens, but in-state students. This past year, UC Berkeley admitted a grand total of 13,324 applicants, of which only 8.8 percent were from outside the U.S. Moreover, this 8.8 percent of foreign students were overqualified for admittance — the mean SAT, GPA and ACT scores of international admits were consistently higher than those of in-state and out-of-state students, according to UC Berkeley’s freshman profile. Taxpayer-funded, public universities are arguably the institutions with the most obligation to favor domestic students — and despite opponents’ denunciations of international enrollment, it appears that these universities are undeniably maintaining their commitment to the public.
However, private universities host much larger numbers of international students. USC is among the leading educators of foreign undergraduates, with 14 percent of admitted students hailing from secondary schools outside of the United States during the fall 2015 enrollment cycle, according to USC’s freshman profile. With private schools like USC taking larger amounts of international students who could potentially displace domestic ones, the question remains as to whether there is anything to be gained by these policies.
The primary purpose of a university is to provide students with a holistic education. This cannot be done while maintaining a U.S.-centric mindset inconducive to the characteristics of a global society. A very small percentage of American students either have the funding or the opportunity to study abroad, and thus, interactions with international students may be one of the first and most important college experiences with those with different customs and value systems. The ability to share experiences with young people of other nations and cultures is an experience necessary to becoming a global citizen, and one that universities are aware of when they add international students to their freshman profile.
In truth, the admission system keeps a host of administrative issues that require complex solutions — but the admission of international students is not a contributing cause. Rapidly decreasing admissions rates are due to a multitude of socioeconomic factors, but past the admissions hurdle, American students can only hope to become and remain competitive if they can interact in a globalized society. International students should not become our new scapegoat. The system is broken — but barring international students is a pointless and dangerous band-aid method.